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Rockin' Good News at The Outer Harbor
by Cory Perla
Local promoters inject new life to vacant waterfront site
A small fish flops on the end of a fishing string as a young woman reels in her line, standing on the edge of a concrete ledge at Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. The forecast called for a chance of rain but the sky was blue as I drove over the skyway en route to the Outer Harbor concert site a few moments earlier. As I reached the pinnacle of the skyway I sailed past several iconic Buffalo structures: the HSBC tower, the First Niagara Center, a massive grain elevator, the U.S.S. Little Rock sitting in the water of the inner harbor, and finally a new icon: the lofty Outer Harbor stage, which Guns N Roses christened a few weeks earlier with a spectacular rock and roll show. I ask the young woman what kind of fish she just pulled in and she says it’s probably a bass, her first catch of the day. A family bikes by as I turn and walk in the direction of the new stage. I have permission to check out the site, but the only real barriers are signs that say, “no trespassing” and “stay off.” A small set of stairs leads to the roughly 60-foot wide by 57-foot deep stage area. I climb the stairs, walk up to the edge of the stage and unleash a wicked air guitar solo, imagining what it must be like to hold a real guitar in front of 12,000 screaming fans, the water full of sail boats and jet-skiers to my right and the Buffalo skyline to my left. The ground in front of the stage is sprinkled with confetti, presumably from the Alice Cooper/Marilyn Manson show that happened there a week earlier. The view from the crowd is just as impressive with the aforementioned landmarks of Buffalo in view.
The stage in question belongs to Funtime After Dark, a partnership between Funtime Presents and After Dark Events, two of the biggest promotion companies in Buffalo. The two companies have teamed up to bring one of the summer’s biggest concert series to Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. The men in charge are Afterdark Events head Chris Ring, and Funtime promoters Donny Kutzbach and Artie Kwitchoff. If you’ve been to a big show at the Town Ballroom, or any of the free Thursday shows in the last decade, chances are these guys were behind it. Their next big show and the centerpiece of their new concert series at the Outer Harbor is a Grammy Award winning band well known to the Buffalo area: The Black Keys. The rock duo couldn’t be better representatives of a huge Buffalo concert series: they hail from Akron, Ohio a Rust Belt city with a familiar spirit and culture. Wrapped in plaid and denim, the Black Keys—guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney—exude a mixture of indie rock and blues that is characteristic of slow moving blue-collar towns like Buffalo and Akron. They combine just enough blues to appeal to baby boomers with just enough far-out variation to reel in the indie rock crowd. The wildcard that helped the band transition from underground secret to mainstream hit makers between their 2006 album Magic Potion and their 2008 record Attack & Release was the cinematic production of producer Danger Mouse. Their 2010 follow up, Brothers, shook the alternative rock world with singles like the Danger Mouse produced hit “Tighten Up,” which won the 2011 Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo, and the equally memorable “Howlin’ for You” a crunchy rock tune with a buzzing guitar riff, and hooky chorus (“dada dadada, dada dadada!”) which still echoes throughout pop-culture in commercials and TV shows now, several years later. The album was nominated for five Grammy Awards in 2011 and took home Best Alternative Music Album among others. For many people, including myself, Brothers was the first Black Keys album to really stick. The band formed a decade prior to the release of that record and the duo often credits their gradual rise in popularity as one of the reasons they’ve been able to keep it together. “We were too insecure to have a song sound good enough to be radio-worthy,” said Auerbach of the band’s early days in a 2012 interview with The Telegraph. Had their debut album been Brothers, we would probably be talking about a defunct group right now. The album was the culmination of 10 years worth of experimentation and hard work from the band, but as an award winning breakout record, it could prove difficult to follow up. In 2011 the Keys dropped El Camino, which upon first impression seemed like an airy, more lighthearted release. Though the album is titled El Camino, the record sleeve bears a photo of the band’s first touring vehicle a Plymouth Grand Voyager van complete with wood paneling. The vibe of the record matched the vibe of the artwork—glam rock from a Rust Belt blues band. Rather than playing it safe, the band doubled down, releasing a fun and solid rock record that won them still more Grammy Awards, this time for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Album. Now, at what might be the height of their popularity, the band comes to Buffalo for a massive outdoor concert performance, presented by Edge 103.
“The Black Keys are a band we have worked with for years,” says Artie Kwitchoff of Funtime Presents. “We knew they wanted to come back to Buffalo. Last summer we wanted them at Canalside but the dates weren’t open.”
This was one of the reasons that Kwitchoff, Ring, and Kutzbach sought a new outdoor concert space. Funtime had booked Thursday at the Square on and off for about 10 years. In 2011, Buffalo Place moved the popular Thursday at the Square series to Canalside, Buffalo’s Inner Harbor. Funtime was involved in helping Buffalo Place transition their free concert series to Canalside, a move that has been popular among fans.
Funtime began putting on ticketed shows at Canalside, which included performances by the Tragically Hip and Alice Cooper last year, but with the increased popularity of the venue it became more difficult for Kwitchoff and company to find open dates for their ever-growing concert scheduling demands.
The old Pier location, the Outer Harbor, suddenly became a viable option. Chris Ring of After Dark had begun to reach out to the NFTA, the organization that owns the Outer Harbor land, so it made sense for Kwitchoff and Kutzbach to team up with Ring and After Dark Events to try and make the idea work. Funtime After Dark began negotiations with the NFTA in November of 2011. “We had no idea what they would say, we just liked the idea,” Kwitchoff says. As it turns out, the NFTA liked the idea too. Two years ago, the NFTA put out a request for proposal and Funtime AfterDark submitted. NFTA Executive Director, Kim Minkel, reviewed the submission. “There were some initial concerns regarding traffic, security issues, and what the property would look like at the end of the day,” says Minkel. “Traffic has been a bit of a problem for some of the events, but I think that’s a good problem to have. Where there was no traffic before, now there is traffic.” Minkel says that based on the feedback she has received, people are overwhelmingly in support of the project.
After negotiations with the NFTA ended, it was time to give the area a test run. “We wanted to ease into this, and we thought Girl Talk was a perfect, fun, fairly easy show,” Kwitchoff says. The show went off without a hitch as Girl Talk, a Pittsburgh based DJ and producer, rocked the harbor with a frenzy of dance music, lights, beach balls, and toilet paper guns. They followed that up with a show by the Dropkick Murphys and then finally Edgefest, which drew nearly 8,000 people to the site. They ran all three shows off of Stageline 320 brand mobile stages, the same type of stage used at the Canalside concerts. The stages are extremely sturdy and easy to put up and take down in one day, Kwitchoff says. After the first year, the NFTA was pleased. “They’ve done a very good job of aesthetically improving the site,“ Minkel says.
The original Stageline 320 stages worked well for the run of test shows, but for the 2013 concert series, their first real series at the Outer Harbor site—as they considered the first three shows simply one off concerts—Funtime AfterDark wanted to make a big impression. “We needed to make a statement. We had this big space, we wanted to do something that you couldn’t miss coming over the skyway,” Kwitchoff says.
They connected with Mountain Productions to erect a 35-foot tall, 98-foot wide stage right on the waterfront. It took union stagehands about three 12 hour days to construct the stage from the ground up with riggers hooked onto ropes swinging through the air, constructing it by hand. “It was wild,” Kwitchoff says. “What we found last year was that although bringing the stages in and out worked, bigger shows would require bigger stages.” The new Mountain stage will not come down at the end of each concert, but instead it will stay up for the entire summer, reminding everyone who comes in and out of Buffalo that we can in fact make good use of good space.
Once they made the decision to put the stage up for three months they knew they could start getting more aggressive booking shows. The Alice Cooper/Marilyn Manson concert was originally scheduled for Syracuse but the show was struggling, Kwitchoff says. With the brand new stage constructed, moving Alice Cooper to Buffalo was a no-brainer.
Vicky Walters, and her husband Ken, big fans of Alice Cooper, took a ride down to the Outer Harbor for his show there on June 15. “I wanted to be centered and I wanted to hear the music, but I didn’t want to be too close,” Walters says. There were around 5,200 people there so there was room to maneuver around the outdoor concert area, which holds a maximum of 12,500 people. The Walters took a lap around and found a nice spot to stand, about 100 yards away from the stage. From that distance, a hand held out at arms length doesn’t even hide the whole stage. For them, it was the perfect spot to take in the whole scene. Finding a parking spot took a little longer than expected they said, but the couple was able to leave the concert pretty quickly when the time came. Their only other piece of advice to the promoters: invite some local food trucks down there next time.
With such a big stage there are obvious concerns, especially in the light of tragedies like the stage collapse at last year’s Radiohead show in Toronto and the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in 2011.
“Mountain actually sent an engineer up for the Guns N Roses show,” Kwitchoff says. “They wanted to be on hand to watch the whole thing and approve it and say ‘that is safe, this is safe.’”
Mountain Production has constructed stages for Woodstock, MTV Spring Break, Ultra Fest and many other events, so the set up is well known to the crews of big touring bands. “When a band arrives on the scene, they know what to expect,” Kwitchoff says.
The Outer Harbor area, owned by the NFTA, a state entity, has turned out to be the ideal area for the type of concerts Funtime AfterDark throw. They have a three-year contract with the NFTA to use the Outer Harbor Site, but it may not remain the NFTA’s property forever. “As everyone knows, [the NFTA] is looking to sell it,” Kwitchoff says. “We’re hoping that the next people who own that piece of land will want to allow us to continue, but it seems like things should be good moving forward.”
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